Holotropic Breathwork

People often ask me what I think of holotropic breathwork. Since I have not not undergone this work, I cannot answer from direct experience. I do, however, have a some thoughts about it, based both on reading and on discussions with people who have undergone it. I have recounted some of these thoughts in my book The Tao of Natural Breathing.

Holotropic breathwork is based on intentional, sustained hyperventilation, which can, apparently, be a powerful tool in the work of psycho-spiritual transformation. Stanislov Grof discusses it his book The Adventure of Self-Discovery (pages 170-184, New York: State University of New York Press, 1988). Grof, a well-known psychiatrist who is also the founder of “holotropic therapy,” points out that sustained hyperventilation helps to loosen psychological defenses and bring about a “profound emotional release and physical relaxation.” Grof maintains that this takes place not just through the traditional psychiatric mechanism of catharsis, but also because hyperventilation brings to the surface “deep tensions” in the form of “lasting contractions and prolonged spasms … that consume enormous amounts of pent-up energy.”

From Grof’s point of view, it is the eventual burning up of this energy through these sustained contractions and spasms that brings about psychophysical transformation. Sustained hyperventilation, combined as it is in holotropic breathwork with powerful music and rhythms, is usually an intensely emotional work, and the person undertaking it may require a great deal of individual therapeutic guidance and attention as the process unfolds. What’s more, says Grof, since the sustained hyperventilation of holotropic breathwork initially amplifies and makes manifest the various psychophysical tensions in the organism, it is important to continue this form of breathing until resolution and release take place. If one stops too soon, the benefits will not occur.

As fascinating and important as Grof’s work is, it is my intent in my books, articles, breathing exercises and practices, retreats, and workshops to show how it is possible to safely rediscover our natural, authentic breath in the ordinary conditions of life, without the need of psychiatric help. I will not, therefore, discuss the therapeutic techniques of hyperventilation any further, especially since I have not done that work.

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